April 18, 2007
Canoeing in the Wilderness
'The Maine Woods' (1864) was written in three essays and published posthumously. If he had lived longer, Thoreau might have revised them into a more cohesive whole, but he never had time to do this. The book describes trips over an eleven year period, and Thoreau's work on these essays spanned 15 years. The third and longest essay was originally titled "Allegash & East Branch", about 200 pages, and in 1916 it was published as a separate (very slightly abridged) book re-named 'Canoeing in the Wilderness' which is reviewed here.
This is one of the most vivid and realistic experience of an out-door trip I have ever had, in part because I have direct experience in the lakes of Canada and can smell, hear and see everything Thoreau describes. Nothing particularly "adventuresome" happens, just the normal day to day of being in the wilderness (fishing, getting lost, telling stories, rain, cooking fires, wet clothes, etc..), but Thoreau describes it with such grace, simplicity and clarity I was completely in the woods. But perhaps the best part was the Indian guide Joseph Polis (1809-1884), a Penobscot tribal leader, who Thoreau hired -- he starts out cold and indifferent and as the days move on his character and nature is revealed until by the end he is an old friend. It is the most intimate and realistic portrait of a native American individual I have ever read. Considering this is written circa late 1850s, Joseph was the "real deal", and has been forever immortalized by Thoreau.